Soho Cinders at the Queens Theatre: Still looking for the perfect fit

Sunday 9th October 2011

Having particularly enjoyed the music from Betty Blue Eyes, we were keen to attend this one-off performance of Stiles and Drewe’s ‘Soho Cinders’, at a charity event in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust.

This semi-staged performance was a refreshing reminder that you can do a lot with a few props, some imaginative choreography, a band and a top-notch cast of West End performers giving their all.  The presence of Hannah Waddingham and Clive Carter in the cast was the biggest draw for us, but whilst both were a little underused, there were plenty of stand out performances.  Sandi Toksvig as the narrator brought her dry wit to the proceedings, Sharon D Clarke shone in the terrific opening number ‘Old Compton Street’.  Amy Lennox was charmingly goofy as Velcro, the modern equivalent of Buttons (Velcro – buttons – geddit?).  Stealing the show were Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard as the ugly sisters, whose big number ‘Over men’ was brilliantly delivered.  Never did we think we would see Viz’s ‘Fat slags’ made flesh, and what a lot of flesh there was.

Once again, the music did not disappoint, with a host of enjoyable numbers, from the haunting ‘They don’t make glass slippers’, to the joyous ‘You shall go to the ball’, and more intimate duets such as ‘gypsies of the ether’ and ‘wishing for the normal’.    In addition to providing the lyrics, Anthony Drewe teamed up with Elliot Davies to give us some equally entertaining dialogue.  There was so much to enjoy here, with lots of clever twists and references to the original fairy tale.  At over two and a half hours the production was a little long for such a lightweight story, but it was rarely boring.

So why did we feel that something was missing?

In ‘Soho Cinders’ we are promised a ‘modern musical fable’ which is also a ‘satirical comedy’.  The Prince is now ‘James Prince’, a soon-to-be-married man running for London Mayor, with Cinderella becoming Robbie, his secret gay lover, a put-upon step-brother who is trying to win back his mother’s coffee shop by studying Law, whilst earning money on the side as an escort (and in this production that is a euphemism).   A fable is essentially a morality tale, and the original story of Cinderella is about overcoming unjust oppression.  In this version, Robbie is too knowing and already in control of his own fate.  The prince really has no redeeming features, unless you count the buff-ness of an ex-swimmer’s body.  He is totally spineless, duplicitous, selfish and his idea of great self-sacrifice is publicly apologising to his fiancée, after he has been found out – in short, he is all the things that Prince Charming wasn’t.  None of the characters are really likeable, and Velcro and Hannah Waddingham’s character only earn our sympathy because of their dignity in adversity.  Perhaps the problem is that a fable usually reinforces and celebrates the morality of the time, whereas a satire undermines and ridicules it.  We suspect that until the authors decide what they want to do, this show will remain a trifle unsatisfying.

Interestingly, the production history on Stiles and Drewe’s official website suggests that they had originally decided  to end the show with the number ‘They don’t make glass slippers’ to signify that in real life there aren’t always happy endings.  In this version, it was just a stopping off point to an ending that was a bit pat.

As with Betty Blue Eyes there seems to be a mismatch between the essentially heartwarming and upbeat tone of the music and the downbeat nature of the story and characters.  We are denied the emotional pay-off which the music seems to promise.  On that note, it is very heartening to see that Soho Cinders will get an original cast recording – these songs deserve a wider audience, and perhaps out of the context of the story, they will be more satisfying than the show itself.

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